Riding the culture shock wave

Originally published in the Korea JoongAng Daily.

Coming from Melbourne, Australia to Seoul has unveiled an odd concoction of emotions – confusion, amazement and being totally overwhelmed by how prevalent kimchi is.

However, my fascination with how people act here is stronger than anything else. Obsessive bowing, drinking more soju than water and discovering the power of the ondol (floored heating) system have all been part of adapting to Korean life.

The first thing I read prior to visiting Seoul was a plastic surgery piece written by Patricia Marx of The New Yorker. She bluntly wrote: “If you want to feel bad about your looks, spend some time in Seoul.”

I was prepared, but obviously not enough. On my second day, I visited Sinsa-dong in Gangnam District, in search of what “Gangnam style” actually is. It means flawless women who take extraordinarily decent care of themselves, not just through the way they dress, but via an obsessive amount of plastic surgery.

Here, nose jobs, double-eyelid surgery and jaw shavings are a regular part of life. Cosmetic surgery clinics and advertisements flaunting doll-like women dominate Gangnam. When discussing the prevalence of plastic surgery with my Korean friend, Haram, she said surgical procedures are common graduation presents for high school students; many parents even encourage their children (mainly girls) to have their surgery completed in time for their graduation photos. This means girls are usually 17 years old when they decide to alter their faces.

Being from Melbourne, this idea is completely perplexing. The main decisions a 17-year-old girl faces there are what final-year subjects she will choose at school or which new cafe to have brunch over the weekend. Plastic surgery is not flaunted where I’m from; it is still considered taboo.

One part of Korean life I admire is how communal everyone is- to the point where I envy it. I wish we had the same sense of community back home. There is something warming about seeing diners happily chat with pojangmacha (food tent) owners on Seoul’s streets and in markets. These people are complete strangers but babble away as if they are lifelong friends, or an aunt talking to her niece.

However, sometimes eating with Korean friends gets too communal. It translates into double, triple, even sextuple dipping when sharing dishes. As a germophobe, I struggle with this, as I know I’m going to get a side serving of someone else’s saliva with my meal. I understand it is a way to bond with others, but surely there are alternative ways.

Let’s get on to coffee. Melburnians, including myself, are self-proclaimed coffee snobs. We take great pride in the city’s consistently high coffee standards. So I was ecstatic to see that coffee has such presence in Seoul. As I ordered my first cappuccino from one of Insa-dong’s funky cafes, I noticed locals everywhere drinking their lattes through a straw. Not a normal straw, but a tiny, narrow, little straw. I immediately felt like an outsider.

Why do 60 percent of coffee consumers in Seoul drink through a straw? Is it to prevent discoloring of the teeth? So women don’t ruin their lipstick? It’s still a mystery to me. Admittedly, I’ve started doing it, too. I already stick out enough; may as well try to live like a local.

Considering there are at least two cafes in every 30-meter (98-foot) radius, coffee remains ridiculously expensive. Starbucks, considered the bottom of the coffee chain in Melbourne, charges double the price for a tall-size latte here.

Another thing that is surprisingly expensive – fruit. Baskets of strawberries usually sell for around 6,000 won ($5). And as an Australian who loves watermelon – seriously, it should be our national fruit – paying 15,000 won for one is completely out of the question.

I came to Seoul knowing three Korean words: annyeong haseyo (hello), gamsahamnida (thank you) and bibimbap. I was aware prior to leaving that many Koreans speak English, so I didn’t think communication would be a problem. What I didn’t know is how humble and incredibly shy Korean people are.

Every time I ask whether someone speaks English, they religiously answer “no.” If I have any advice for people traveling to Seoul, it would be to try speaking English anyway. Most people can speak the basics but are too scared to lose face that they would rather say no.

Mealtimes have probably been the most entertaining part of being in Korea. Here, audibly slurping soup and theatrically sucking up noodles are great things. These gestures signify that you enjoy the food. So if you have dreamt of being a one-man eating orchestra, South Korea is the place for you. But to be able to eat here, you must get used to the challenging world of metal chopsticks.

Legend has it that in imperial times, the king ate with silver chopsticks, that would change color if his food was poisoned. Commoners aimed to emulate his wealth by eating the same way, but with metal chopsticks as opposed to silver. Other explanations, which are comparably boring, are that Koreans prefer eating with metal chopsticks because they are more sanitary and reusable. Regardless, it’s damn hard.

The extent to how courteous Korean people are comes out during meals as well. In Korean culture, you do not pour your own drink; others do it for you.

Sure it’s taken some getting used to living here, but Korean culture is rich enough to keep the foreigner constantly curious. In South Korea, being bored simply does not exist.

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